Shifting to online, APTN prepares for future growth
By Philippa Wolff
When John Medicine Horse Kelly tunes into the news on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), it’s usually with a remote. But in December 2012 APTN’s online coverage caught his eye.
The Internet, he says, “transformed” aboriginal news. It allowed journalists to do in-depth reporting non-stop, updating stories about the aboriginal protest movement Idle No More via the APTN website, and their Twitter accounts several times a day. APTN’s audience was able to network and share stories.
Kelly, Carleton University’s only indigenous journalism professor, first walked into a newsroom in 1974, with a dream and a camera he didn’t know how to use. His career includes four years covering news in the Pine Ridge Lakota community for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota.
APTN’s development since expanding its online news section in 2010, he says, has “Aboriginal people entering, in bigger and better ways, into the larger culture of society. We don’t lose our identity. We preserve it.”
He predicts aboriginal peoples will get more say in Canadian society, “thanks to mass media and to the Internet.”
The nature of news gathering and storytelling is changing. Today, people use social media to make their voices heard, and journalists turn those tweets and Instagrams into news for the public.
This is particularly important for news organizations, like APTN, which cover a marginalized group. APTN can present news on its original television platform, but it can spread stories to a wider audience online.
[pullquote]Listen to us, listen to our stories, and seek to understand. Listen. That’s all we want.
— Leroy Denny, Eskasoni First Nation Chief [/pullquote]
Aboriginal stories are on the road to becoming mainstream Canadian news. Jennifer David, director of APTN communications when the network launched, says APTN has grown since it applied to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission in 1998.
When APTN’s founders wrote that application, they didn’t have any money for the network. APTN had a website in its initial month — a basic list of programming.
And news? It didn’t appear until APTN had been on the air for seven months. “It costs a lot of money to put news on television,” says David, who left APTN in 2001. “So we launched with no news, no current affairs show at all.”
APTN’s first current affairs program, Contact, premiered in late March 2000. InVision News, a news show that aired twice a week, followed in mid-April. APTN National News, its daily news show, premiered in 2002—a little over three years after APTN’s launch.
By November 2000 APTN had five news bureaus: Winnipeg, Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax. It has since added six bureaus, in Yellowknife, Montreal, Saskatoon, Whitehorse, Edmonton and Iqaluit. By March 2010 there was consistent archival news space and a news section on the APTN website.
David says this growth “has forced mainstream networks and producers to think about aboriginal issues.”
Gaps in Maritime reporting
Chief Leroy Denny of the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton says ensuring understanding between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples is “in the hands of the media.” He says the work to make those connections isn’t done yet. Journalists need to open up their “minds” and “hearts”.
“Listen to us, listen to our stories, and seek to understand. Listen. That’s all we want,” Denny says. “I’m hoping the media can help us with that and I’m hoping they can improve in that as well.” APTN, Denny says, needs to be part of that improvement. Smartphones give APTN a greater online presence in Eskasoni, but APTN’s news coverage isn’t sparking interest.
He thinks the reason is uneven coverage. “I’m hearing stuff (on APTN) about B.C. and Ontario,” says Denny. “There’s nothing about our people.”
Out of 103 stories published on the APTN National News website in September 2013, six were based in the Maritimes—three in New Brunswick, two in Nova Scotia, and one in Prince Edward Island.
That’s a fair figure in terms of coverage relative to population; the Maritimes accounts for 6.8 per cent of Canada’s aboriginal-identifying population. Ontario, which had 22.3 per cent of APTN’s coverage, accounts for 21.5 per cent of the population. The fact still remains: there were only six stories about 93,690 Maritime Aboriginal people in an entire month on the APTN National News website.
Sébastien Labelle, who has Métis heritage, chuckled when he heard this. As a union organizer in Halifax, Labelle goes to protests and events attended by aboriginal peoples. He hadn’t seen APTN cameras before the protests for local Idle No More, a grassroots movement to bring attention to Aboriginal rights, “were really big” in Halifax in winter 2013, and hasn’t seen them since.
“There’s not very much of a visible presence around here,” he says. Labelle relies on local sources, like the Halifax Media Co-op for aboriginal news, only visiting APTN’s website when there’s a story making waves on Facebook.
APTN’s central and western Canada focus is reflected in its social media audience. The first 20 comments with identifiable locations on the APTN National News Facebook page in early October 2013 were from British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario: four of the most well-covered provinces.
Even in Alberta, viewers feel the sting of lacking coverage. There’s a balance problem there: Alberta has 15.8 per cent of the country’s aboriginal population and 5.8 per cent of the stories.
Gail Gallagher, a Cree masters student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says APTN’s developing online news is “cutting edge,” but she still feels the network “could be doing more.” Ontario’s 23 stories, compared to Alberta’s six, bothers Gallagher. The coverage, she says, “is kind of (an) inequality.”
Too few reporters
This problem of uneven coverage comes down to resources, says APTN news director Karyn Pugliese, who works in the network’s head office in Winnipeg. APTN has 24 working correspondents, video journalists and reporters assigned to APTN’s investigative program APTN Investigates.
Both online reporters, Jorge Barrera and Kenneth Jackson, are based in Ottawa. Barrera and Jackson arrange nearly all of APTN’s stories—not just their own—on the online platform. Nearly 40 per cent of those stories are based in Ontario or focused on federal governmental affairs in Ottawa.
The 24 journalists leave APTN with an average of less than two reporters per province or territory. This number has a lot to do with money. APTN’s 2012 Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission renewal application reported having $38.1 million budget from advertising and subscriber fees. CBC’s government funding alone for the year was $1.1 billion.
According to Pugliese, each region in Canada has “at least” one journalist covering local news. This leaves individual reporters like Halifax-based Ossie Michelin responsible for more stories than he could ever cover. “It’s a real judgment call,” says Pugliese. “Often the reporter will just sit there and have the gut feeling of what the most important story of the day is to go with. There’s that. The distances are always an issue. Travelling to our communities sometimes can be a two-or three-day trip.”
APTN’s first Halifax correspondent, Maureen Googoo, says these problems plagued APTN six years ago—before online journalism took off. “We really had to search for a fresh angle,” she says, “otherwise, the story would be dated and then some.” Googoo is now based in Indian Brook, near Shubenacadie. She ran two Aboriginal news websites—radiogoogoo.ca and kukukwes.ca — since leaving APTN in 2007.
Online journalism is varied and quick. It can be done over the phone. Video journalism is time-consuming. Googoo says as long as television is APTN’s focus, it will rarely get the story out first. She subscribes to “around 150” Google Alerts, and often sees stories in local newspapers before they are broadcasted on APTN. “(APTN’s) really not a place to go to look at breaking aboriginal news,” says Googoo, “When you look at the site, you know that the priority is television.”
There is a strong belief throughout APTN, from news director Pugliese to local reporter Michelin, that online media is making a difference, even in less populated areas like the Maritimes. For Michelin, multi-platform reporting is central. He noticed it in November 2012, when he told a three-part story about Mi’kmaq language education in Eskasoni.
The story was “really shared within the community,” says Michelin. It passed between friends on Facebook, and Michelin was able to watch as the comments, likes and shares built up between individual users’ Facebook pages. Today, when Michelin’s proud of a story, he wants “it to be online.”
Pugliese says APTN is in a unique situation because it’s building on a pre-existing Facebook community of aboriginal peoples. “They all know each other. They’re all interconnected. I think it’s just because they work together, they’re friends together and stuff like that,” Pugliese says. “There’s a want, there’s a desire to receive their news that way.”
Pugliese says audience connection is key to APTN’s presence online—it’s a big leg up from the days when APTN got its stories from community sources and press releases.
“When you have things like Twitter and Facebook, they become like two-way conversations,” Pugliese says. “It’s a way for people to bring stories to your attention really immediately that you might not otherwise see or hear about, or really know about.”
This is a big change for APTN reporters. When Pugliese was APTN’s Ottawa correspondent from 2000 to 2006, communication between reporters and audience members was a challenge.
“(Viewers would) see me in the community, but if they didn’t happen to grab my card or grab my number, they didn’t necessarily know how to reach me,” she says. APTN now puts reporters’ contact information and social media handles on screen and below online articles.
To Global News national digital director David Skok, in Toronto, multi-platform reporting—in APTN’s case, telling stories across the media of television, online and social networks—isn’t just about making that extra connection with the audience. It’s about survival.
Skok co-authored a Nieman report—a critical study for Harvard’s journalism fellowship program—on the topic last year. He says multi-platform reporting is “everything.” It’s “critical, ” he says, because the way people get their news is changing, and it varies throughout the day. People are moving to tablets and smartphones, and are also using different devices, like televisions and computers, at different points of the day. “You will be irrelevant if you just have one platform,” Skok says.
More platforms can translate into big numbers. In late 2012 and early 2013, APTN reporter Jorge Barrera led the reporting charge on Idle No More. The coverage spread over APTN.ca, Twitter, Facebook and APTN National News broadcasts. The network’s CEO Jean La Rose told the Globe and Mail in March 2013 that the network’s social media reach skyrocketed from an average of 350,000 to 12 million people.
Page views weren’t the only highlight. Barrera won the 2012 J-Source Newsperson of the Year award for his work on Idle No More.
APTN wouldn’t release recent website statistics due to network policy. An APTN spokesperson said Barrera couldn’t be interviewed because he’s not a network-delegated speaker.
“They’re definitely competitive with other much more well-funded, deep-pocketed, far more established media outlets,” say Candis Callison, a University of British Columbia journalism professor who sat on the J-Source award jury. She gives a lot of credit to APTN for putting resources toward multi-platform and Barrera’s Twitter storytelling in particular.
For John Medicine Horse Kelly, back in Ottawa, APTN’s Idle No More coverage was impressive because it didn’t follow “darting” news patterns. APTN, through its online platforms, was able to be persistent and didn’t “lose interest and go away.”
From where Kelly’s sitting, APTN’s future is looking bright. “Keeping (aboriginal) journalism present” online will keep aboriginal issues on the map, the Haida journalism professor says. “We’re no longer the forgotten people,” says Kelly. “And our media presence is going to reinforce that.”
Edited/Layout by Adrienne Bernstein
King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.